The Climate Psychologist

Are You in Climate Change Denial? Three Signs to Look For

A slightly shorter version of this post was published yesterday on the Psychology Today blog, “Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action” 

It is easy to scoff at climate change “deniers”—people who refuse to believe the scientific consensus that fossil fuel emissions are causing global warming and a host of disastrous impacts, including intensified drought, flooding and severe weather. We can even feel smug that we believe in the science, unlike those ridiculous deniers.

Not so fast. Is it possible to acknowledge that climate change is real and man-made, while still being in denial about the gravity of the situation? Check out this list. You may recognize yourself.

1)    You think climate change is bad, but not that bad.

Do you think that climate change is mostly damaging “the environment” and Arctic wildlife? Do you view climate change as a problem for “our grandchildren?” Do you feel badly for people in far away countries who will be hurt by climate change, but unconcerned about yourself and your community? Do you consider climate change just one among many equally difficult problems in the world today?

If so, you could be vastly underestimating the scope and urgency of the threat. Climatologist and NASA scientist James Hansen describes the climate crisis in the starkest terms:

Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallized only in the past few years…The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet, but also the survival of humanity itself — and the timetable is shorter than we thought.

Climate change threatens the lives of billions of people, as well as the collapse of civilization, democracy, and the rule of law. Climate change is already causing severe weather, droughts, floods, food shortages, the spread of tropical diseases and invasive species, and mass migrations of people. These conditions are contributing to political instability and civil war across the planet, and they are getting worse every day. Climate change is not one problem among many — it is the defining problem of our time, and our reaction to it will affect the lives of all humanity for centuries to come, since the climatic changes we are setting in motion are not reversible, even after we stop emitting fossil fuels.

2)    You don’t have an emotional reaction to climate change.

Perhaps you know all this. Maybe you are well aware of the planetary emergency we are facing. But does this knowledge stay in the intellectual realm? Have you cried about climate change? Do you have nightmares about it? Do you feel differently about your future, knowing that it will unfold amid constant ecological calamity?

You should. Keeping your knowledge of climate change purely intellectual is a psychological defense mechanism that we use to cope with overwhelming feelings. This is a type of denial. The truth is recognized, but the feelings that should accompany this knowledge–namely, terror, grief, anger and regret–are banished and denied. When I am trying to help people get in touch with their emotions about climate change, I remind them that “Climate change is unfolding in your life.” Climate change is happening to you, to me, and everyone we know. You are intimately involved in it. You should know it in your gut and in your heart–not just in your head.

3)    You aren’t getting political.

You recycle. You drive a hybrid. You turn off your lights when you leave a room. Haven’t you done your part?

Unfortunately, you haven’t. Individual actions to reduce emissions cannot possibly solve this immense, global problem. The United States must respond to climate change like we responded to the threat of the Axis powers during WWII — by mobilizing our entire society for the fight. During WWII all Americans worked in service of the war effort: Factories produced huge numbers of tanks planes and ships, universities focused on war research, ordinary citizens conserved resources and planted Victory Gardens. All hands were on deck, all Americans working towards a common purpose.

To achieve this level of coordinated response to climate change, we need a social movement that wakes Americans up to the immanent threat we are facing. Organizations such as 350.org and Citizens Climate Lobby are attempting to build that movement. The Climate Mobilization advocates for a WWII level mobilization, using the Pledge to Mobilize to as an organizing tool. Signers pledge to only give donations to political candidates who have also signed the Pledge, to vote for candidates who have signed over those who have not, and to spread the Pledge to Mobilize to others, especially people respect and care about. This process of spreading the Pledge will strike blows against denial, and empower individual citizens to make a meaningful difference in this global crisis.

There is a Chinese proverb: To know and not act is not to know. The greatest catastrophe in history is happening on our watch. We can either be bystanders and passive victims, letting climate change happen to us, standing by as it horrifically unfolds, or we can actively fight for what we hold dear. We can muster our individual skills, talents, relationships, and resources to fight climate change with moral strength and creativity. We can truly abandon denial and rise to the challenge of our time, together.

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